Lynton Howes

Effective adult learning – How to embed stories

One of the things I remember most vividly about my childhood is spending time with my grandparents, and I can still remember their anecdotes and sayings, some 30 years later. Part of the reason for this is that they always wrapped their nuggets of wisdom in stories, which were fascinating to a youngster; not just because they spoke of worldly experiences which seemed exotic at the time, but because they were evocative, visual, detailed enough to draw you in, and constructed thoughtfully, with an introduction, body and conclusion.

Thanks to modern neuroscience, we now know that the human brain is naturally wired to receive and remember experiences within the structure of a story. And nowadays, we keep hearing again and again that effective learning materials must include stories, but how often does it? Think of training materials you are familiar with and ask yourself – are they evocative, visual, detailed enough to draw you in, and contain an introduction, body and conclusion? If so, good for you – your instructional designer has done (at least part of) a great job. Most times though, from my experience, the concept is known but under-employed.

Now, you can’t expect to enchant your adult learner the way Pop did to me… in fact, it’s more than likely that the adult learner has more life experience than the trainer, and if it’s system training, may even know parts of the system better than the trainer. Nonetheless, the principal still applies – let me give you an example of how I went about it on one occasion.

I was given training materials for system training (SAP) which consisted of an activity guide, data set and a long slideshow. Do this transaction, do that transaction, click here, save there. If we were teaching robots it would probably be fine, however it wasn’t really flowing sequentially and more importantly, it didn’t tell the story through a scenario. I set myself to restructuring it to add a story and make it more compelling.

Firstly, I scrapped most of the slides. Pop never needed Powerpoint to show me how to bait a hook or get on a horse, and I can still remember how to do those vividly. Sure, slides have a place and are great as bookends and support material for classroom training, but not as training itself. “Learn by doing” beats “death by slideshow” for any content, any learner.

Next, I put the thinking cap on – I have to think like this end user to come up with the right story. Pop used to say that to understand someone you should put their shoes on and walk a hundred miles. Well I didn’t have that much time, and thankfully, I have the benefit of having been an SAP end user, so the job was half done – but if you haven’t, you could obtain the information you need by coming up with some typical scenarios which might fit with the learning objectives, and then running these past the trainees in advance, or their leader. They will surely appreciate the time taken to compose a realistic scenario for them.

Scenario chosen, it’s then a fairly simple matter of weaving the activities around this, ideally forming an end-to-end replication of the entire scenario (intermittently relating it back to the process flows, if you have them) complete with introduction (problem or trigger), body (the core processing steps) and conclusion (problem solved or process ended).

My trainees loved the training, because it was realistic, compelling and memorable, and left them with the skills to tackle similar situations on their own. Stories help learning stick.

Sounds simple? It is, especially if you think about telling the story at the outset of your content creation. Good luck, and I’d love to hear your opinions or experiences – go on, tell a story!

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